Thirsty Cities, Dry Farms: Part 2 – Super Ditch

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7min 20sec

For more than fifty years, Colorado’s farmland has been drying up; not from drought, but to meet the thirst of growing cities. Now farmers in one of the most threatened basins are trying a new approach, one that keeps most of their lands growing crops but also supplies urban needs. Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee has the second of two stories on the movement of water from farms to cities.

Find the first story in the series here.

The following is a transcript of Megan Verlee's report:

REPORTER MEGAN VERLEE: If you like green, then John Schweizer’s farm looks like a little bit of paradise: fields of corn and fragrant alfalfa rustling in the sun fifty miles east of Pueblo. Irrigation water bubbles along cement ditches where short lengths of pipe siphon it out onto Schweizer’s fields. It’s technology that changed much in a hundred years. Each pipe has to be set by hand every time the field is irrigated.

JOHN SCHWEIZER: "Yesterday evening when he set this water, he set every row. You have to get the water in there..."

REPORTER: It’s hard, tedious work, but the difference it makes is tremendous. To understand what this water means to Schweizer and his neighbors, you have to see what the land looks like without it. So we set out for a quick tour of the valley. Along the way Schweizer shares a bit of his philosophy of farming.

SCHWEIZER: "I always got tickled at my mother. She didn’t think you should ever gamble. But she and my father farmed all their married life, and if that’s not a gamble, I don’t know what is."

REPORTER: It’s not farming’s perpetual gamble but its potential one-time payout that has Schweizer worried these days. Over the past few decades, a lot of his neighbors have cashed in their water rights, selling to cities and retiring, along with their farms. We’re not on the road long before we see the effects of that transfer. The land changes from green to brown, weedy fields crisscrossed with the remains of old irrigation systems.

SCHWEIZER: "See, there’s an irrigation canal right there, that indentation."

REPORTER: Schweizer doesn’t want to see any more farmland dry up around here, so he and other farmers here are working on a different way to meet cities’ water needs. He’s president of what’s called the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch.

SCHWEIZER: "The Superditch is a not a ditch at all. It’s just a combination of the ditches in the valley. I just like the idea of it: leasing part of your water and continuing to own it."

REPORTER: So instead of individual farmers selling off water rights, irrigators in the valley band together to lease up to a quarter of their total water to cities. The farmers take turns leaving some of their fields bare for a few years, but they all get to stay in business. Schweizer says it might even make it easier for people like his son to continue the family farm.

SCHWEIZER: "If the water’s sold, it’s impossible to ever pursue and fulfil that dream. And with the Superditch concept, and if it becomes a reality, then most of the water stays on the land and they continue to do what they’ve dreamed about doing for generations to come."

REPORTER: Leasing water isn’t a new idea. In the past, water courts have approved short term leases to cities during droughts. But what’s proposed here takes things to a new scale. More than eighty percent of the farmers in the lower Arkansas Valley say they’re interested in the project. That represents hundreds of millions of dollars worth of water. Jay Winner, head of the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District, has worked on the Super Ditch idea for the past decade. He says until now farmers and cities have generally seen each other as competitors for water.

WINNER: "It’s taken us years to get farmers comfortable with each other, years to do that. It’s taken us years to get the cities to say they would like to play."

REPORTER: Those years of effort may be about to pay off. The Super Ditch company is currently selecting farmers to participate in its first small scale test lease.

WINNER: "I think this pilot program will be where we start working out the issues. Where we start seeing what there is legislatively that will legally let you move the water. So most of the questions are in front of us."

REPORTER: There are likely to be plenty of legal tweaks needed before large scale leasing is really practical, including getting the idea through water court. But even if the Super Ditch company can get those details worked out, the big question is, will cities sign on the dotted line? For a municipal water manager, security is the single most important thing. When a new homeowner turns on the tap for the first time the city must keep that water flowing as long as the house stands. Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs echoes the skepticism many water managers have about Super Ditch.

HOBBS: "Do municipalities really want this leased water? No, I would say instinctively they want the permanent water rights and they want to lease it back."

REPORTER: That lets cities stay in control. Right now cities buy up lots of water to prepare for future growth and lease it back to farmers until they need it. It means hundreds of thousands of acres are being irrigated on borrowed time; one day they will go dry. There are some water managers though, like Curtis Mitchell in Fountain, who are willing to give leasing a shot.

MITCHELL: "It makes a lot of sense. It provides sustainability for us as a city and it provides sustainability for agriculture. For me it’s a win-win."

REPORTER: Fountain is the Super Ditch’s first customer. This small city south of Colorado Springs will be leasing water from farmers in the pilot program.

MITCHELL: "From a city’s perspective, certainly my job is to make sure that we keep the pipes full going into the future and we meet the future needs of our customers, the ones we have now and the ones that will be coming to this city. But when you look at the bigger picture of sustainability, our city has other needs beyond that of water, and our state has other needs beyond that."

REPORTER: For people who believe that farms are important to Colorado’s future, the hope is that helping farmers to lease their water will provide some much-needed steady income. That might make farmers less vulnerable to financial troubles in bad years, the kind of troubles that often lead them to cash in on their water rights. At least, that’s what Super Ditch board member Bert Heckman hopes.

HECKMAN: "I have been contacted by people that were ready to retire, were thinking about selling, asking me this question: how soon? So I think this is given some hope to some of those people that are right on the tipping point, deciding, ‘well, we can wait a couple more years.’"

REPORTER: Super Ditch’s backers hope that by then, they’ll have the full-scale leasing program up and running. Back in Otero county, Super Ditch president John Schweizer says it’s not a perfect idea, but it’s the best one he’s heard of yet to keep irrigated farming in his valley.

SCHWEIZER: "All we’re saying is at the present time, it’s the best there is. If there’s a better solution, I hope somebody would come and tell us."

REPORTER: As we return from our tour of the desolate former farms in Crowley county, Schweizer stops at the top of a small rise. In front of us, his lush corn fields spread across the valley floor. Next to the truck is a dry patch of earth some neighbor has left bare.

SCHWEIZER: "That’s no water, and that’s irrigated. It’s all the difference in the world. This is my valley, but if anybody can sit here and look at that, and say that’s not worth saving..."

REPORTER: Schweizer asks me to turn off the tape recorder as he gets his emotions under control. It’s clear that it’s not just green fields he’s hoping the Super Ditch can save here in the Arkansas Valley, it’s an entire way of life.

Megan Verlee, Colorado Public Radio News